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Heretics and heroes: How Renaissance artists and Reformation priests created our world

A Hinges of History volume by Thomas Cahill

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Renaissance born, Reformation raised

  • Mar 18, 2014
Cahill has been guiding us through what he calls the "Hinges of History", describing the major threads and the decisive turning points in cultures, languages, arts, nations , and religions that have made us.  His style is narrative, ecumenical, inventive. and broad-ranging.   Previous volumes in the series introduced us to our Jewish and Greek roots filtered through the world-changing appearance of Jesus Christ, and communicated and filtered through the Irish and the Middle Ages.

Here Cahill brings the story up through the Renaissance, where an explosion of art and knowledge (the printing press serving its time much like the internet of today) help to establish the modern concept of the individual as a worthy subject of both study and the state.  In parallel the Reformation sparked by Luther and other religious thinkers (again aided mightily by the power of the press) applies the power of the individual to interpret and act on Scripture in a way which splintered the Christian church and sundered the forming nations of Europe for good.

Cahill's style is not tightly argumented narrative in prescriptive form ("this is how it happened"), but suggestive narrative in broad-ranging descriptive form ("these are factors that contributed to what happened").   Along the way he uses portraits of renaissance figures both famous and unknown to prove his point on the ascendancy of the individual, and gives perhaps the simplest and best layman's explanation I've read of the Church's theological justification of the sale of indulgences that set off Other and leaves Cahill (and most modern readers) shaking his head with a quizzical and questioning "Huh?" (p. 149-151)

I don't always agree with his theology, but that's okay, because he's weaving history, language, art, science, technology, and even sometimes theology in a brilliant, fun, and inventive style that teaches and opens up new connections and ideas and makes sense of how these threads make us so-called moderns just human beings Renaissance born and Reformation reformed.  One thing I have appreciated about his writing is that Cahill neither places religious creed at the core of everything (it is clear here, for example, how much of the Reformation was driven by politics and influenced by individual personalities) nor diminishes or denigrates the points where real belief and faith operate on people, places,  and historical events.

With one more volume in the series planned, I look forward with great interest to how he will weave these many threads into a finished tapestry of history.

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March 19, 2014
Interesting stuff!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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